Anakin and Ben: Two Views on Life (and Death)…

Pope Benedict has rightly asserted that the true power of the Christian scriptures can be seen not on the page, but in the life lived in light of its revelation. To truly understand a passage we don’t necessarily need an educated commentary as much as we need real-world experience with those who are putting those words into action: i.e. should one want to consider what Jesus meant when he said, “I was hungry and you gave me food,” then look no further than the life of Teresa of Calcutta.

With that in mind my mind turned to two startling images this Sunday while at church: Anakin Skywalker (a.k.a. Darth Vader), and Ben Kenobi. What does a Sith Lord and Jedi Master to do with Jerusalem?[1] In a sense these two masters of the force represent the two ways that the Church Fathers presented for dealing with one’s life.

Think back to the newer series (the prequel series),[2] there we see the temptation and fall of Anakin Skywalker.[3] Throughout the series Anakin, affected by the deaths of loved ones, and raised in a cocoon by his mother, struggles to master the world around him and protect himself and his loved ones from evil. On the one hand this is the understandable concern of anyone raised in a single parent home which has been marred by tragedy, poverty, and enslavement. On the other hand this concern for one’s family and friends should be considered a prohibitive good. What right-minded individual would desire to do something other than protect one’s loved ones. Yet this concern for Anakin serves as a soft spot to be exploited by the manipulative and ambitious Senator Palpatine. As Palpatine sidles up to the young Jedi Knight, he asks if Anakin wouldn’t be interested in cheating death, in learning how to keep a loved one like Senator Amidala from death. “Join me and together we can assure that you will defeat death and keep it at bay,” the crooked senator cajoles the upright Jedi. So time after time Anakin seeks to preserve life and protect it from the encroachment of death: he goes dark to kick some serious Sandpeople butt[4], he lies about his motives, he considers tyranny as an appropriate response to the political chaos surrounding the Senate, and last he chooses to protect Palpatine against the attack of Jedi Master Windu. Over and again he seeks to soothe the chaos of life by asserting control, staking out short-cuts to conflict resolution, and crossing boundaries from accepted inquiry to long forbidden dark-side practices. Yet by the end of Revenge of the Sith, he stands as more machine than human having caused the death of his wife (and he believes the death of his child) and having perpetrated a crime of epic proportion (the slaughter of the thousands of Jedi padawans at the temple). True, he has cheated death at the hands of Ben Kenobi but at great cost both to body and soul. His ‘mastery’ of death has led to a besotted, broken, and painful existence abetted only by use of the dark side to power his ravaged body. In holding to life comes death.

Now think back to the original series and the first of the movies to hit the big screen.[5] Here we see the older Ben Kenobi and met his charge, Luke Skywalker, son of Anakin. The prequel series lets us know that Ben’s presence in Luke’s life is no fluke (as it seemed to the original audience watching without the backstory as seen in the 90s). After watching his pupil Anakin go wonky, the Jedi order utterly ravaged, and Palpatine named Emperor, he fled to far-away Tatooine where Luke was given to his uncle and aunt, and Ben has stayed in the picture overseeing the young man’s safety.[6] He, of course, joins Luke on his attempt to rescue Princess Leia Organa from the Empire. There Ben and his former pupil met and duel. Ben’s purpose in the duel is not revenge, is not hatred of Vader, but comes from his desire to distract the Sith Lord from Luke’s presence and ultimately enable Luke, Han, and Leia to escape. This man who has again and again given up his life for others:[7] taking on the apprenticeship of Anakin, taking on the responsibility for Amidala and her children, and last in taking on Luke as an apprentice (if somewhat short-lived). As the duel progresses he seeks not to save his life; yet offers it as a ransom for Luke. He tells Vader, “You may strike me down, but I will become more powerful still.”  Ben is struck down, but even in death is able to mentor and train Luke, and through Luke bring peace to the universe, and balance to the force.[8] His death means something. His death plants the seeds for liberty and freedom to re-emerge in the controlled world created by Palpatine. In embracing death comes life.

Two lives[9] lived in pursuit bringing order to the chaos of life. Two lives faced with the tyranny of death and the damage and reward brought on by one’s choices. If Vader has sought to preserve his life at all costs; Ben counted it as nothing in the face of his responsibility to serve others. If Vader has sought to control his fate, then Ben has sought to meet his fate with honor intact. In their lives these two men illustrate the teaching of the Church Fathers who lived in deserts not unlike the one on Tatooine in which Anakin, Ben, and Luke called home. These Desert Fathers taught that in life one is faced with the choice of two pathways. They called these the Way of Life and the Way of Death. These titles referred not to their pathways but to their endpoints. So at the end of the one lies Life, and at the end of the other lies death. Taken this way what fool would choose the latter in favor to the former, many a protégée asked the fathers. Who would choose the way of death when the way of life is on the table? Yet here is the challenge as revealed by the lives of Anakin and Ben.

Though one might desire the end of the one, the journey, itself, can be misleading. Many a good soul has chosen the path which looked to be more life-affirming, protected, and safe, only to find upon it only death. Meanwhile many bad apples have walked onto the path dotted with briars and seemingly filled with dangers unknown, only to find upon it life. The one way says, “Trod upon me I am comfortable and safe. I will give you freedom from danger. Look how wide and well-used, I am. See all the happy people traversing my path. Choose my branch and escape danger and threat. Take your ease and enjoy yourself. Take no worry of your surroundings.” The other, well, doesn’t talk itself up much. As I mentioned it looks formidable.  Briars encroach upon its pathways, and the darkness and shadow of menacing forests cover large patches of ground. It appears not as well-used and long stretches may pass without sight of fellow journeymen, and what few pass its steps seem a little dangerous, moody, and ill-bred. The one offers short-cuts and quick riches, amusing fellowship and ample chances to experience pleasure. The other offers sore bones and bruises; silence and ample chances to experience deprivation. Along the one stand jokers, barkers, and show persons providing entertainment and plenty of encouragement that you have chosen wisely. Choose that one and family members applaud your decision-making abilities, in-laws celebrate your desire to provide a good life to their children and grandchildren, and the tastemakers of the world congratulate your sophisticated palate. Choose that one and no one judges your actions,[10] no one complains about your manners,[11] no one denies your inner desires,[12] and no one talks about death. Along the other death is a constant companion, if not an invited friend. Judgment, manners, and self-denial become watchwords. On that path the good life sometimes seems something reserved for some promised but never delivered future date. In short the one way looks enticing and promises mastery over death; while the other promises death upfront and looks seedy if not outright dangerous.

Yet something strange occurs along these paths. The way that once looked promising at some point begins to fail to deliver on its promises. You may not notice due to all the flashing lights and soothing enjoyments offered along the way, but look closely and this mastery over death comes with a surprising price-tag. Blink and you stand more machine than man, alone with beloved family members and friends dead at your feet. However along the other one becomes, if not, accustomed to death, able to give up that which cannot be maintained to gain that which cannot be lost. In giving up much, something more is gained. Decisions that once seemed quaint, and ill thought; now reverberate into eternity. While once alone a community has developed. The example and practice of giving up little habits for the good of others encourage a mutuality and magnanimity of spirit that attracts, bonds, and holds families and friends together (even in adversity). Blink and troubles fade into the background, while the sweetness of life explodes into the foreground.

Make no mistake, the desert fathers urged, there are two ways in life: one leads to life and the other to death. Along the one the pilgrim dies a thousand little deaths but is reborn anew each time, a little stronger, a little wiser, a little more open to quiet joys and sorrows of life as it is really lived. Along the other the settler experiences a thousand lives, but quickly becomes immune to each ultimately becoming sickened by anything actually resembling a true life. Careful now, you might hear the winds of the Tatooine desert whisper, there is the way chosen by our wayward son Anakin, and there stands also the way chosen by our exiled pilgrim Ben. There is life to be lived, and death to be gained. Careful now, mind the gap, watch your feet. Choose your steps wisely.

[1] I mean other than the start of a good joke: So a Sith Lord and a Jedi Master walk into Church…. Bum-Bump-Ba-Bum.

[2] You may also call it the lesser series, the Gungan Poo-doo Series, or the series that almost killed my love for all things Star Wars and any remaining respect for George Lucas as a writer.

[3] I guess at this point I should say SPOILER ALERT, but seriously if you have not seen the Star Wars by now 1) shame on you and 2) you really don’t care anyway so why complain if I reveal plot twists.

[4] If you listen closely this moment in Attack of the Clones gives us the first hint of Darth Vader as his theme from Empire is replicated a few bars both in the fight and his spinned recounting of it to Amidala.

[5] Star Wars, 1977. Of course, the name was changed to A New Hope in the 90s to account for being the 4th movie chronologically speaking.

[6] One of my all-time favorite duels is that of Ben and A’Sharad Hett (who would become Darth Krayt) who tangle when the two Jedis come into contact in thedesert ofTatooine and Hett takes too active an interest into Luke.

[7] Just as he saw his Master Qui-Gonn Jinn do for him. Jinn takes on the Sith Darth Maul and gives his life in protection of Ben and Anakin.

[8] If only temporary.

[9] Albeit fictional ones, but I quote G.K. Chesterton here: “Literature is important, fiction is necessary.” Our favorite stories tell more about our lives than anything we can ever express otherwise.

[10] At least as long as you do not judge theirs.

[11] Unless, of course, you have the misfortune to be behind the fashionable curve.

[12] Unless, of course, your desires have been judged icky or tacky by everyone in the know.


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